The Nightingale, 2019.
Directed by Jennifer Kent.
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie and Magnolia Maymuru.
In 19th century Australia, an Irish convict embarks on a mission of violent revenge when her family is attacked by a group of English soldiers.
Aussie director Jennifer Kent immediately became one of the most exciting directors around with her visceral, terrifying debut feature The Babadook in 2014. It has taken a while for her follow-up to arrive, but the result is a movie of sprawling, epic scale that shows a talented filmmaker given the opportunity to spread her wings on a much broader canvas – that of 19th century Australia, colonised by the British.
At the centre of that canvas is Aisling Franciosi as Clare – an Irish convict existing under the control of Sam Claflin’s British Army lieutenant, Hawkins, who runs a small settlement but has ambitions for more power. She’s referred to as their “nightingale” as a result of her singing voice and it’s clear that Claflin’s character, in particular, is overcome with emotion when she sings. It’s equally clear, though, that his position of power allows him to express his infatuation with Clare in more violent ways. This culminates in a horrifying attack on Clare and her family that leaves her determined to carry out her revenge.
These early scenes are the closest The Nightingale comes to Kent’s previous feature. Lit predominantly by candlelight, it’s a theatre of claustrophobia and isolation as characters exist entirely in sparse, crumbling rooms. The decision to shoot in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio only amplifies the sense of confinement as Hawkins’s reign of terror leads to a string of shocking atrocities. It’s probably too simplistic to place this film in the current trend of what could perhaps be called New Aussie Extremity, alongside films like Snowtown and Wolf Creek, but Kent certainly refuses to pull punches in inflicting suffering upon Clare.
What follows is a cat and mouse thriller, though not in the conventional sense, as Clare joins forces with Aboriginal guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to pursue Claflin and his band of allies as they travel north so that he can take up a more lucrative military post. Blood is spilled, nature presents its challenges and Clare must grapple with whether revenge is going to be all that it’s intended to be.
The claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere continues even as the landscape of The Nightingale widens, with that aspect ratio utilised primarily for intense close-ups, isolating these characters in a wilderness that few of them truly understand. When Clare delivers her pessimistic outlook on life – “welcome to the world, full of misery from top to bottom” – it feels like an understatement in the midst of a film that is gruelling from start to finish. It’s a tough, meandering watch that is uncompromising in its vision, for better or worse.
Kent’s visual filmmaking is deeply impressive, with a shot of Clare in the foetal position at the mossy base of an enormous tree standing out as immediately striking and memorable. However, there’s a sense of a raggedy thesis that doesn’t quite come together about the storytelling. It’s a portrait of the messy, tangled nature of revenge which isn’t all that interested in catharsis. Much like Jeremy Saulnier’s brutal Blue Ruin, this is a movie about the futility of bloodshed that shatters illusions about how revenge actually feels, but it never quite lands its ideas in the way Saulnier’s film did.
The performances are excellent, with Franciosi an instant star and Ganambarr standing out for his sensitive, emotional portrayal of a native man being forced out of his home by foreign invaders. Claflin, meanwhile, is always terrific when he’s allowed to play unhinged and this is perhaps his best performance since Lone Scherfig let his privileged posh boy explode in the underrated The Riot Club.
But despite the evident talent on both sides of the camera, there’s the sense that something here is missing. The lean, potent allegory at the heart of The Babadook is sorely missed amid all of the rape, murder and other nastiness. There’s a lot going on here, and some of it is brilliant, but the finished product doesn’t quite seem to cohere into something that, like a nightingale, sings an elegant tune.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.